Found an extensive cache of Aztec ritual offerings below the center of Mexico City, just off the steps of what would once have been the holiest shrine in the empire, offers new insight into pre-Hispanic religious rituals and political propaganda.

Sealed in stone boxes at the foot of the temple five centuries ago, the contents of a box were found right in the middle of what was a circular The ceremonial stage has broken records for the number of sea offerings from both the Pacific and the Mexican gulf coast, including more than 165 once-bright red starfish and more than 180 complete bead branches.

Archaeologists believe that Aztec priests carefully layered these offerings into the coffin on the raised platform for a ceremony likely attended by thousands of enthusiastic spectators amid the thunder of drums.

“Pure imperial propaganda,” Leonardo Lopez Lujan, a chief archaeologist at the Proyecto Templo Mayor of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), who oversees the excavation, said of the likely spectacle.

In the same box, archaeologists previously found a sacrificed jaguar dressed as a warrior associated with the Aztec patron Huitzilopochtli, the war and sun god. Covid-19 pandemic forced a break on excavations for more than two years.

Previously unreported details include the discovery last month of a sacrificed eagle held in the jaguar’s talons, along with miniature wooden spears and a reed shield found next to the west-facing feline, which had brass bells tied around its ankles.

Dating from the reign of Emperor Ahuitzotl, who reigned from 1486 to 1502, the semi-excavated rectangular box now shows a mysterious bulge in the center beneath the jaguar’s skeleton, indicating something solid beneath.

“Whatever is under the jaguar is something hugely important,” said Lopez Lujan. “We expect a big discovery.”

Lopez Lujan, head of the excavations at what is today known as the Templo Mayor, thinks the box could contain an urn containing the cremated remains of Ahuitzotl, the emperor whose military campaigns expanded the empire to modern-day Guatemala as he explored the Pacific. and the Gulf Coast of Mexico. .

But he says it will take at least another year of digging to resolve the issue.

An archaeologist excavates a ritual Aztec sacrifice
An archaeologist excavates a ritual Aztec sacrifice in Mexico City, November 15, 2022 [Henry Romero/Reuters]

Aztec world view

To date, no Aztec royal tomb has ever been found, despite more than 40 years of digging around the Templo Mayor, where more than 200 offering boxes have been found.

The temple towered as high as a 15-story building before being razed to the ground in the years following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, with the rubble serving to obscure many of the latest finds.

In addition to the central offering containing the jaguar, two additional boxes have recently been identified alongside, both of which will be opened in the coming weeks.

More ferocious beasts dressed as warriors, perhaps adorned with jade, turquoise and gold, are likely.

The water offerings covering the jaguar may represent the watery underworld where the Aztecs believed the sun set each night, or possibly part of a king’s journey after death.

Joyce Marcus, an archaeologist specializing in ancient Mexico at the University of Michigan, says the recently excavated offerings are the Aztecs “worldview, ritual economy and the obvious links between imperial expansion, warfare, military prowess and the role of the ruler” in ceremonies that sanctified conquest and allowed tribute to pour into the capital.

“Each offering box adds another piece to the puzzle,” she said.

Finally, the skulls of a dozen sacrificed children between one and six years old were also discovered in a nearby pit, dating back decades but also related to the god Huitzilopochtli.

The information gleaned from the excavations goes far beyond incomplete colonial-era accounts that were also colored by the European invaders’ own justifications for conquest, according to Diana Moreiras, an Aztec scholar at the University of British Columbia.

“We really get to know the Aztecs on their own terms,” ​​she said, “because we’re actually looking at what they did, not what the Spanish thought of them.”

An archaeologist excavates an Aztec ritual sacrifice in Mexico City
This ritual Aztec sacrifice is believed to be associated with the Aztec tutelary deity Huitzilopochtli [Henry Romero/Reuters]

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